Outside of James Bond himself, which character is the most important in the Bond franchise?
As you can imagine from the title, the character is M. For all the supporting characters that Bond has dealt with, most notably Q and Felix Leiter, M is the only one Bond has to truly respect, and he respects no one more than M as played by Bernard Lee, who would originate the role in Dr. No and play him until his death after Moonraker.
Bernard Lee’s M has a tough love appreciation of his best agent. He chastises Bond for not paying proper attention to meeting times, for not taking his assignment too seriously, tries to send him to Canada to handle a terrorist plot, doesn’t like Bond’s gambling or womanizing, but recognizes that Bond is the best man he has, and often seems to be more interested in pushing Bond because he sees Bond’s potential; it becomes apparent quickly that M has complete trust in him as well.
Lee interacted with three Bonds: Sean Connery, George Lazenby, and Roger Moore. His dynamic with Connery, the tough surrogate father-son dynamic (Bond is an orphan after all) reflects M’s disdain for Bond’s lifestyle, exemplified by their first on-screen meeting in Dr. No coming in the middle of the night after Bond’s been up late gambling, is often mixed with the fact that Bond’s understanding of the upscale world, as well as his way of women (and people in general) are some of Bond’s best attributes. In Connery’s last performance, in Diamonds Are Forever, M reminds Bond that MI6 does not revolve around him, both a reflection of Connery’s absence in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and a foreshadowing of his permanent departure soon thereafter.
George Lazenby was only in one film, the aforementioned OHMSS, but his dynamic with Lazenby is initially rough, stiff, and professional, but warms up (thanks to Miss Moneypenny’s assistance), and actually allows the film to move into the bulk of the story through their reconciliation.
Bernard Lee’s M develops a dynamic with Moore, and it takes time, but he warms up to him.
The only weak performance Bernard Lee gave as M was in The Man With the Golden Gun, which to be fair to the great actor, was a pretty horrific film (that seriously threatened to destroy the franchise); however, I blame the script and direction, both of which had him in a perpetually bad mood. However, Lee’s M take a warmer touch to 007 in Lee’s next two Bond films, which be his last, often showing more of the mentor-protege dynamic than previously seen.
Lee’s last scene in Moonraker, his final Bond film, is a seemingly traditional final scene between M and 007; Bond embarrassing M by getting it on with the lead heroine, which given that Bond can’t be reached, leaves M to explain it. His second-to-last scene, though, is a moving moment between him and Roger Moore’s Bond, which expresses the classic dynamic of subtle antagonism, coupled with the warm mentor-protege dynamic of late. Bond, who has last major chance to break the case open, is given the go-ahead by M, who then tells him not to make any major errors again.
Only three actors have played M; a fourth, James Villiers, portrayed Tanner, M’s Chief of Staff, in For Your Eyes Only, as the producers did not want to recast M immediately after the passing of Bernard Lee, which had occurred after production started, out of respect for the actor.
Robert Brown, who had previously portrayed an admiral, portrayed Bond from Octopussy to Licence to Kill, and his portrayal was not as strong as Bernard Lee’s, largely because Brown lacked the presence that provided the teeth you need to portray Bond. He was good at occasionally putting Bond in his place, but until Licence to Kill, he was unable to generate any sort of real threat to Bond’ career, and sometimes even his life, which is an inherent component of the M character; and then he overdid it.
However, Robert Brown’s departure, coupled with the Timothy Dalton’s in the interim between Licence and Goldeneye, allowed for a reboot of the relationship between Bond and M, allowing a return to tougher dynamic in the early days of the franchise.
Judi Dench, who has played the role of M since 1995, even through the reboot with Casino Royale, was an inspired bit of casting; it not only reflected the changing times, it also reflected shifts in the real intelligence world, as Stella Rimington had become head of MI5 three years prior. Bond, meanwhile, hasn’t changed much; he’s still guided by his instincts, still a womanizer, still loves his gambling. Their first scene together, essentially watching the first terrorist attack by the bad guys, reflects the tensions between them. Bond acknowledges his dislike towards her statistical approach, whilst she reminds him that she could order him to his death, whilst telling him, in a subtle manner, that he is important to MI6.
Their dynamic expresses itself strongly in Tomorrow Never Dies through Die Another Day, in which M continually backs Bond, gives him the most vital assignments, and even lets him go rogue to achieve the mission at hand, which isn’t to say the relationship is rosy.
Well, Judi Dench’s M took an unusual turn when the series was rebooted; in addition to providing vital continuity, she implied a sense of history, both in the franchise at large, and in the film itself, where she helps make clear that Bond is a new 00-class agent; she also has one of the best lines, where upon reflecting Bond’s immaturity, she comments “in the old days, if anyone made a mistake that bad, they had the sense to defect. Christ, I miss the Cold War.” Quantum of Solace continues their developing relationship, where M supports Bond, even as he fluctuates in and out, and goes out in anger against those who killed Vesper Lynd.
However, Judi Dench gets to play M with a lot more ruthlessness in the rebooted series; she openly threatens Bond with death if he violates her privacy, although she lets a few things slide in the name of global security. She acknowledges not only his anguish at losing someone close to him, but also that the desire for vengeance is a natural, and in their world, a necessary one. We also get to see M play off a young Bond, and see her shape him into the smooth and suave agent we know him to be, something he accomplishes at the end of Quantum of Solace (one reason why the gun barrel sequence is at the end).
I suppose it’s too easy to say that M needs to be played by veteran actors, who are pretty far apart in terms of age from Bond. Bernard Lee and Judi Dench succeeded in bringing all the part together, including the occasionally needed ruthless disregard for human life, something lifted straight from the Ian Fleming novels.
M is the second most important character in the Bond films because he or she needs to control Bond, get Bond to focus, then ultimately unleash Bond onto the bad guys. No other character is as inherent to the character of Bond, and that is why such a part requires the masterful actors it has gotten.